Between sips: The surrogate way

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Published: April 10, 2016 6:00:48 AM

Marketing of spirits is a major no-no in India. In such a scenario, surrogate advertising tries to save the day

THERE’S SOMETHING to be said about branding and how important it is to most corporates. Companies spend millions of rupees in trying to plant their name in the minds of their consumers all in an effort to generate some sort of cognitive resonance. To create the Pavlovian equivalent of a bell so that every time we feel hot, we reach out for a particular sherbet, or when it’s sticky, we use a certain soap and talc, and when we are hungry, we think of India’s most cherished instant noodles.

The world of marketing, advertising and publicity is truly vast and, given new media, which can be used to proliferate the message, brands are coming up with more ingenious ways to mark their presence.

Not so much for wines, beers and spirits though, for, in India, as in many other countries, liquor branding is a major no-no. You can buy it, drink it and even serve it, but you can’t be allowed any exposure that makes you aware of its very existence. Stupid, don’t you think?

Which is why companies have to spend more time and resources figuring out new ways to promote their brand without actually talking about the alcohol part. Yes, it’s like upselling water, but not being allowed to mention ‘thirst’. In steps surrogate advertising to save the day, or, well, to not let it be completely ruined.

Surrogate is the mother of necessity and thus, by metaphoric correlation, the grandmother of invention. Companies dream up all sorts of allied products, which they can advertise on popular media without inviting official or administrative ire and yet ensure that their target of creating brand recall is achieved. From hosting golf tournaments to selling packaged drinking water, from playing cards and music CDs to more elaborate holiday packages and what not, nothing is too zany for their imagination as long as it helps consumers remember their name. Most of these products aren’t even intended to independently succeed—let alone churn a profit—but, by sheer virtue of existence, one imagines that it will strengthen a brand’s recall chances.

Recently, an Italian drama company presented the flavours of the southern Italian region of Apulia through the medium of dance and music. We were all plugged into our headsets at a bookshop, while a carefully choreographed set, one that synced both the dancers in front of us and what was being shown on a screen, was performed. It told the story of the flavours through a narrative involving a tarantula—doesn’t translate well now, does it? Believe me, it was great, but you had to be there.

Another way is to bring the camel to the mountain or, in this case, a swanking new winery, which is what Chandon India has launched recently. The wines, which have been out in the market since some years, are already lovely and a visit to their pristine facility will only help build loyalty and recall further.

But how long can we keep up these pretences? Looking the other way doesn’t mean that Indians don’t thirst for their tipple, or that they don’t order a meaty cheeseburger the first thing on landing on foreign shores. Electoral candidates need to find a new angle to woo rural voters rather than threaten urban ones with prohibition. Gujarat is a dry state only on paper. Just ask a local and he might not even be sober enough to answer you with a straight face. The authorities need to realise that blanket bans curb nothing. Such desperate double standards have to go. Forget drinking and driving, it’s mixing politics with pleasure that’s the real deadly combination.

The writer is a sommelier

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